Thursday, July 19, 2012

Coming of Age in Samoa

Coming of Age in Samoa – Margaret Mead

Long hailed as one of the most prominent anthropological voices in recent history, Margaret Mead made her start by visiting Samoa for her first fieldwork study on the raising girls. Looking at how education and relationships influence the experience of adolescence, Mead studied when and how girls develop their “adult” knowledge and compared it to the conflict-filled and frustrating adolescent experience in the States. Mead discusses personal awareness, interpersonal relationships, sexual relationships, and how all these relationships and the education of girls is ultimately defined by the family. And as a good anthropologist, she neatly summarizes her results and compares them to US circumstances. She finds that Samoa presents a simpler lifestyle with no protections about what information is fit for young children to learn (concerning life, death, sex, birth, and so on), giving children broader knowledge from which to make choices, although their choices are limited because of the structure of the society. In contrast, children raised in the heterogeneous US culture of nuclear families tend to have strong emphasis on specific relationships, protected and guilty knowledge, and more difficulty in making choices because the choices are broader and more heavily weighted than choices in Samoa.

Take all of this with a grain of salt. Margaret Mead went to American Samoa in the 1920s when she was 23 years old, and this is the resulting work. I actually feel that my personal experience in Samoa relates fairly well with what Mead describes. From what I’ve seen, Samoans grow up in large, extended families that are constantly shifting depending on who has what responsibilities, who gets married, who is fighting, etc. Most everything seems to be based around the family structure. Funerals and births are more frequent, and although every single one is a fa’alavelave, it isn’t as big a deal in Samoa as it is in the States. It’s not protected information. Obviously the school system in Samoa has changed and become more formalized since writing this, and the church now has a much larger influence on Samoan life than it did at the time of writing this. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of her book was – she says frequently that she is looking specifically at the education of girls and how it compares to that of the US, but she covers a lot of other topics as well. I was often confused by the people she talks about for specific examples. Instead of following two or three girls throughout the course of the book, she interviews several girls and draws on specific situations to illuminate her theories. But I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to be – it’s not a case study or a direct comparison; she is looking for a general analysis.

The other thing I ran into with this book was a lot of criticism. Every time I told someone I was reading Margaret Mead, I was always told I had to read Derick Freeman when I finished her. Apparently Derick Freeman came onto the anthropological scene later and showed how all of Margaret Mead’s research was wrong, specifically in Samoa. I’d love to read his book because I did find most of the material in Mead’s book relatable – I could see the origins of Samoan society today, at least from my palagi perspective it seems really similar. I could also detect a lot of her personal opinions in the material – an emphasis on sexual freedom, personal choice, looking forward to more tolerance instead of maintaining the status quo or moving backward. I’m really interested to see more research on Samoa and how his experience was supposedly more authentic. To sum it all up, I found this book incredibly interesting because it relates so well to my personal experience, but I’m not sure I would recommend it for general reading. The language is a bit dense at times, the examples are hard to keep up with, and it goes into a lot of details that probably don’t seem relevant to a Western experience. But if it counts for anything, I loved it.


Heartwood – Belva Plain

Laura, the one daughter among three brothers, manages to keep everything together. She solves all the problems, settles all the disputes, and manages to bring everyone together, especially when it matters most. Above all, she has a precocious daughter, loving husband, and thriving self-started catering business. Unfortunately, this is the late 1970s and not everyone, especially her husband, is thrilled with her ability to be the breadwinner and juggle family and work responsibilities. Her mother watches from the sidelines, comparing her daughter to herself, and the both of them to her own mother, whom she has always idolized for her perfect marriage. As Laura loses patience trying to buoy her husband’s ego while growing her own business, the image of perfection begins to shatter. Laura finds support from another man, her mother discovers the affair, and generations of family secrets threaten to tear everything apart. Through their own personal journeys, Laura and her mother discover that the ability to love and forgive form the foundation of any solid relationship.

”Heartwood” is an easy read. It’s simply written, the language is understandable, and the characters feel relatable. It’s fairly engaging right from the beginning, and although it feels predictable at points, it keeps you reading until the end. And it doesn’t tell you everything – some family secrets are still a secret by the end of the book, although you can probably guess what they involve. It’s told from a third person perspective, so we get varied coverage of the main characters, but I got confused by this a few times. While most of the story centers on Laura, it does change to other characters every once in a while and I was a little slow to catch up when this happened. The timeline also isn’t consistent, so occasionally we jump to long reminiscences or short memories, then jump back to the present. Those are only small things, though. Above all, this book is readable and relatable, delving into personal, interpersonal, and family relationships, and how to weigh the responsibilities of duty against the desire and need to make decisions and mistakes.

I would call this book pop lit, and I’m not always a fan of pop lit because sometimes it feels boring because it’s overdone and superficial because it’s cliché. However, pop lit is also a guilty pleasure for me when I find something I like, and I did quite enjoy “Heartwood.” I liked that the family was Jewish, the main character was a woman struggling with claiming independence in the “post-feminist” era, and occasionally I like to get caught up in the swept-away-by-love thing. It had some great lines giving insight into how to fully live, how to love and forgive, and how to relate to others and yourself. This was a fairly substantial pop lit book because I found things in the story that made me stop and think a bit, and any book that does that it worth reading.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln is known for many things, but until recently, it was not known to what degree his life was influenced by vampires. Lincoln’s mother died while he was still a boy, but Abe didn’t hear the full story about the cause of her death until a few years later when his father was drunk enough to tell him the truth. A vampire was involved. From then on, Lincoln dedicated himself to hunting down every vampire in America. Vampires would also later claim the lives of his sweetheart and children, making him even more determined to drive them out of the country. His passions led him to politics, and his connections led him to the White House, and there he led a war that was not for men, but would be fought by men. Yes, the Civil War was actually a war of vampires, fought by their human puppets and partners. This biography, relying heavily on Lincoln’s secret journals as its source of information, gives us all the truth that “Honest Abe” didn’t tell.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a fun book. After you make it through the intro (which I found to be slightly confusing and not entirely relevant), it is a quick and entertaining read. Grahame-Smith writes it as if it really were a well-researched historical biography. It has proper block quote format for the extended journal excerpts, and it even has footnotes about other sources and relevant information! The one problem with all this is that the story comes loaded with dates, locations, and people that I didn’t think were exactly necessary. I was reading pretty quickly, so I always skipped over places and dates, and if I couldn’t pronounce the names, the people didn’t matter much either. It didn’t hamper my understanding or enjoyment of the book. And just in case anybody cares, the vampires in Grahame-Smith’s book seem to stick to most of the rules for vampires set forth in “Dracula,” not so much like the shimmery “Twilight” vampires, except that there are good and bad vampires.

I’ve only read two books by Grahame-Smith (the other was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) and I have to say I’m a pretty big fan of his. His ideas are hilarious (let’s update a classic novel with a few random and completely disconnected zombie attacks thrown in), and his writing is easy to understand, making for joyously light (or dark, depending on how serious you take his subject matter and metaphors) reading. Definitely worth picking up, especially if you haven’t read a Lincoln biography before. I don’t know much about Lincoln’s life, and I’m not sure how much more I really know now, but I’m sure at least one or two things in there are actually true.

World War Z

World War Z – Max Brooks

The Zombie War, or World War Z as it is frequently called, was truly a world war that affected every single person on the planet. From the depths of the ocean floor, to the farthest reaches of northern Canada, every person was scared of, impacted by, and fundamentally changed because of the zombie plague. Ten years after nations began declaring victory against the zombies, author Max Brooks has put together a collection of oral histories from survivors of World War Z. He talks to anyone and everyone, from the man who patented the “cure” for “African Rabies,” to a militant teenage Zionist (I think, it was early in the book and I can’t remember for sure) who hates his family’s decision to move to Israel as part of a quarantine plan, to a Russian priest who takes it upon himself to shoot those who have been bitten by zombies so they do not have to commit suicide. Everyone was impacted by the Zombie Wars, and Brooks brings all the difficult decision and personal struggles together in a chilling recollection of a time of worldwide disaster.

Fantasy is an excellent genre for critique, and Brooks leaves out no perspective. While the bulk of the people he “interviewed” are involved in military campaigns, Brooks does an excellent job at including people you wouldn’t normally think of. He writes about the people who trained the K-9 recon team, what it was like to take out zombies on the ocean floor, and the transporters who snuck people in and out of countries before boundaries became impassable. It even comes complete with footnotes. It is an utterly believable account of the Zombie Wars. At first, I focused on the critique, but I quickly got caught up in the experiences of the war and what led some countries to focus on themselves and others to join an international effort. Then, being me, I got stuck on how the zombies functioned. Supposedly, the only way to kill a zombie was to destroy its brain, but it doesn’t seem to function like a human brain because humans can’t survive on the ocean floor. Also, although zombies are in a continual and escalating state of decomposition, which makes it absurdly easy to pull of limbs, they are monstrously strong. How does that work? Maybe he explains it in his other book, “The Zombie Survival Guide,” which I have yet to read.

I highly recommend this book, if only because it is so brilliantly original. Instead of talking about the great zombie plague, he talks about the repercussions. He crafts so many different and believable characters through his interviews, and covers all the topics and nuances that the average citizen probably wouldn’t even consider in a war effort. He has done very thorough research. I didn’t quite get a haunting feeling from the story of how to survive without understanding the basic needs of life, the perpetual fear of an indomitable enemy, and disaster choking out life on all sides, but I enjoyed the book for plenty of other reasons, largely because it is so creatively and thoroughly planned. It’s a great read; you should definitely pick it up.